Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern kicked off her year getting a booster shot on Monday – and on Thursday she will set out the first big Covid-19 decisions of 2022 at Labour’s caucus retreat.
She will arrive at the caucus retreat on Wednesday after a month away with a sense of relief that New Zealanders did, by and large, manage to have at least a month of the summer she had promised.
Omicron is knocking on the door, and there are five big issues on the PM’s plate as she faces a year of trying to work out how the country can live with Covid-19 without being overwhelmed by Covid-19.
The most pressing short-term issue is what to do about Omicron.
Longer-term questions relate to the international borders and the future of vaccine mandates and passes.
The first decisions will be decided by Cabinet on Wednesday afternoon and announced on Thursday.
They will include any changes to the current settings of the traffic light system, including whether Northland will move from red to orange.
But the focus will be on what extra measures and restrictions the Government is set on to contend with Omicron spread.
Omicron: Does the traffic light system need to be boosted, and can the boosters stay ahead of Omicron?
Yes, according to many experts and director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
The Government will not want to look like it has been caught short again after Delta put Auckland into a three-month lockdown last August.
There are multiple cases of Omicron at the border now – and efforts to keep it out of the community are buying time to prepare for it and get boosters into arms and children vaccinated rather than out of a hope of keeping it out forever.
Ardern said it is a matter of when, not if, Omicron starts to circulate in the community.
But the longer that is, the better.
The difference between Delta and Omicron is that we are now highly vaccinated – but the boosters are now critical.
The Government will also need to ensure it is well placed to buy vaccines that are adapted for a new variant.
If the boosters roll-out lags too much, it may result in harsher restrictions, hence the emphasis on it now.
If there is anything good to come out of the Delta outbreak, it is that it shattered the complacency of people who seemed to think we could live Covid-free indefinitely. The early take up of the four-month boosters indicates that that has sunk in.
Ardern has made it clear she does not want to return to alert level style lockdowns – they were part of elimination while we were unvaccinated.
She said on Monday the traffic light system was designed to cater to new variants and outbreaks in a highly vaccinated population. The aim would be slowing the spread rather than eliminating the virus.
But Bloomfield will have given advice to the Government this week on boosting the settings of the traffic lights to cope with Omicron.
That could include anything from regional boundaries right through to simply requiring more mask use, more testing, and smaller gathering limits at red. The other issues that will be confronted will be how cases are cared for at home in the event of an outbreak.
The return to school
Schools are due to reopen and run almost as normal from early February. After a disrupted 2022, the Government will be very reluctant to change that.
The big question is whether Omicron will derail that, and force the Government to decide whether to close schools or revert to restricting attendance if Omicron does spread (as happens at the red level).
The vaccine is now available for all school-aged children – those aged 5-11 started this week – and parents are being urged to get in early.
The Government has shown no signs of considering allowing only vaccinated children to attend school, but the rates of vaccination among children may be a factor in deciding what other measure are needed at schools. Possible measures include wider use of masks, or surveillance testing although there are no plans for that right now.
The Ministry of Education is still working through its Omicron planning – including what schools need to do when there is a case at a school.
What will it take to go to green?
On Wednesday afternoon, Cabinet will look at the current settings under the traffic light system, including whether Northland can move from red to orange – and whether any regions might move to green.
The first is a close call: Northland has hit 86 per cent fully vaccinated, but its Maori population still languishes at 78 per cent (nationwide, 83 per cent of Maori are fully vaccinated). Then again, the opening of Auckland’s borders over summer has not seen cases explode.
The prospect of any region going to green is a different question. There are regions which have a strong case for it. But at green there is little differentiation between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Ardern has also signalled that once Omicron starts spreading in the community, the country will go to red.
She is averse to so-called “yo-yoing” between settings so may well be inclined to leave things as they are for a wait-and-see period on Omicron.
What she could and should do is set out more clearly what it would take to move to green.
At green, there is almost no differentiation between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
That ties in with the longer-term issues the PM will have to wrestle with: just how permanent she thinks vaccine passes (and mandates) will have to be in place.
Vaccination Mandates and Passes
Ardern needs to set out at least tentative thinking on longer-term issues, including whether vaccination mandates for workers in many sectors, as well as the use of vaccine passes domestically are permanent or time-limited.
Little will change in the near future because of Omicron.
But the PM will have to address the issue of whether a point will come when vaccination passes and mandates are no longer justifiable or effective.
The Government could look to either a date or a milestone (a combination of boosters and children’s vaccination rates) at which it starts to ease back on mandates in some sectors (such as education once children are vaccinated) and pass use.
At the moment, all vaccine passes will expire before or on June 1, 2022, so the Government has to work out what their role will be before then.
They are a major part of life at all but the green setting.
The short-term question is whether (and when) a booster will be required to keep a valid vaccination pass.
The longer issue is whether overall vaccination rates will ever be considered high enough to return to a world that does not differentiate between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
It will not be an easy path, but Ardern was uneasy about different rights for the vaccinated and unvaccinated to start with – she will not want them to drag on for longer than they are effective or meaningful. They have also been the source of the most friction in society – Ardern now frequently faces protests against the mandates in particular.
Vaccine mandates will inevitably remain in some workforces: hospital and border workers for example. But will they still be needed in other sectors such as education once children are vaccinated?
Businesses may want to be able to keep mandates and passes in place. Hospitality has always been the first to close and the last to reopen in outbreaks because of the risk of spread. Catering only to the vaccinated reduces their risk and therefore their vulnerability.
International border and MIQ
The Government has previously felt the sting of signalling timeframes for easing the borders only to have to back down, and there will always be a risk that a new variant or an outbreak will derail promises made in advance.
The start of this year will see the Government weighing up yet again just when and how it can ease the border.
That must surely include a reassessment of the plan to use home isolation as a way to reopen the borders to more people from the start of this year – beginning with returning New Zealanders and residents from Australia as of January 17, from other countries as of mid-February, and to all vaccinated travellers from April 30 – including tourists.
That now seems highly unlikely. MIQ is doing all the heavy lifting in keeping Omicron out of the community. But once Omicron is out and the impact clear, the plan could again be revisited.
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